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Indiana World War Memorial Plaza Historic District

The Obelisque Square

Obelisk Square
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

The Indiana World War Memorial Plaza Historic District strongly defines the character of downtown Indianapolis. The plaza comprises six aligned square city blocks of monumental public architecture and landscape architecture, united into a cohesive whole. The district is a nationally significant commemorative tribute to Indiana’s war heroes and the national headquarters for the American Legion and its auxiliary and affiliated organizations, the largest organization of veterans and their relatives. It also is one of the best examples of City Beautiful planning in the United States.

The term “City Beautiful” originated with the title of Charles Mulford Robinson’s 1903 book, Modern Civic Art or the City Made Beautiful. Robinson, like many urban thinkers of his time, was concerned with making order of the chaos in American cities. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago created national interest in civic planning. The exposition’s orderly courts of gleaming white Neo-Classical Revival buildings gave millions of Americans a glimpse of what could be achieved in their own towns. The City Beautiful movement continued until World War II.

The plaza was developed over decades. Architects Walker & Weeks combined the existing University Park and two extant buildings into their 1923 master plan; the Federal Building at the south end and the Public Library at the north end of the plaza.

Old Fedral Building
Old Federal Building
Private Collection

The Federal Building set the trend of grand classicism and was constructed to house federal courts, offices, and the main city post office. Designed by architects John Hall Rankin and Thomas Moore Kellogg of Philadelphia, the building was completed in 1905 during the period when the Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor instituted a policy of using only Classical style architecture for federal post offices throughout the nation. The impressive main façade fills a city block. The Indiana limestone exterior features massive engaged Ionic columns, with projecting end pavilions framing free-standing columns. In 1935, local architects McGuire & Shook designed the addition on the north face of a monumental series of Doric pilasters and full classical entablature. On either side of this section, large round arch openings served the post office once located here. The spandrel panels of the arches have fanciful Deco-style relief carvings of hands sorting letters.

University Park
University Park
Private Collection

The site of University Park was set aside in Ralston’s 1821 plat for a state university that was never built, but it did become the site of the Marion County Seminary in 1832. All that remains of it is a small memorial plaque. The block was used as a drill grounds for Union troops during the Civil War and in 1876 became University Park. The state and city placed the first of a series of bronze sculptures in the park in 1887. In 1914, George Edward Kessler redesigned the park as part of his park and boulevard system plan. The central circle with radiating diagonal concrete walkways and heavy plantings at the corners of the park remain today. Kessler’s favorite light post for his Indianapolis projects, the acorn-globed “Washington, DC standard,” was used throughout the park.

University Park hosts a significant collection of figural sculpture by leading American and international artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Depew Fountain, the central fountain called for in Kessler’s plan, with its playful mythological figures, was initially designed by Viennese sculptor Karl Bitter. After his death, the design and figures were completed by A. Stirling Calder, father of the famed modern sculptor Alexander Calder. The figure of Schuyler Colfax, 1887, east of the fountain is the work of artist Laredo Taft. Benjamin Harrison in the south center part of the park was completed by Henry Bacon and Charles Niehaus. Lincoln Seated, 1934, in the southeast corner of the park is by Henry Hering. Wood Nymph is located directly behind Colfax on the east side of fountain, and Pan by artist Myra Reynolds Richards is west of the fountain.

World War Memorial Building
Indiana World War Memorial Building
Private Collection

The Indiana World War Memorial Building was conceived by its designers, Walker & Weeks, as the centerpiece of the plaza to align on axis with the federal building and public library. The architects based their winning design for the building on reconstruction renderings of the Tomb of King Mausolos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The raised plinth nearly fills the square block of the site, and the main block of the memorial rises above it, crowned with rows of Ionic columns on each face and a stepped pyramid. Grand stairs rise to entrances on the north and south sides with the heroic scale bronze, Pro Patria, by Henry Hering centered on the south flight of steps. The magnificent interior includes rich marble paneling, refined metal fixtures and fittings, decorative plaster cornices, and marble floors. The raised base of the memorial building was designed to accommodate a large auditorium (peek inside if possible) and two large meeting rooms. On the upper floors, the grand Shrine Room is a breathtaking example of American classicism.

Obelisk Square with its 100’ high shaft of black granite is another strong axial element in the plaza’s overall design. Walker & Weeks envisioned it as a forecourt to the Memorial Building. The base of the memorial has a fountain basin of Georgia marble. Henry Hering designed the bronze relief panels on each face of the lower part of the obelisk. Work was complete on Obelisk Square in 1930. The rows of poles with flags of all states were installed along the north edge of the square for the Bicentennial in 1976.

American Legion/ Sunken Lawn
Sunken Lawn
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

The two American Legion buildings in the Sunken Garden define the east and west sides of the plaza at the north end. The American Legion has been a very important advocate for the welfare of its members and other veterans of military service. The organization’s selection of Indianapolis for its national headquarters in 1919, the year the American Legion was formed, was the driving force behind the construction of the World War Memorial Plaza. Walker & Weeks designed the two Neo-Classical Revival American Legion headquarters buildings, placing them lengthwise within a sunken lawn area to emphasize the long axis of the entire plaza. Their plain Doric pilasters and restrained ornament make them subordinate to the main buildings visible from this location, the memorial and the public library. Although both were designed by the architects along with the 1923 master plan, the west building was built in 1925 and the larger east building not until 1950, using the original exterior plans and elevations drawn in 1923.

A black granite cenotaph is located in the center of the sunken garden. Cenotaphs were built in ancient times to commemorate leaders or artists. In 1919, Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the first World War I memorial tomb in London, borrowing the ancient Greek term cenotaph or "empty tomb," to describe his classically influenced memorial. Remains of an unknown British soldier were placed in the tomb. The concept and the tomb were revered by the public and adopted by the American Legion for its headquarters. The Walker & Weeks design was completed in 1930 and features a raised black granite symbolic tomb with bronze cover but without any remains in the tomb. James Bethal Gresham, whose name is inscribed on the north face of the cenotaph, was the first member of the American Expeditionary Force to be killed in action. Four Art Deco-style black granite columns flank the tomb, topped by gold-leafed bronze eagles.

Marion County Public Library
The Indianapolis Marion County Public Library
Private Collection

The Indianapolis—Marion County Public Library sits on the north end of the plaza. In 1913, the city library board, a division of the school board in charge of the library system, hired nationally-known architect Paul Phillipe Cret to design a new main library building for the system, which was completed in 1916. Cret’s design, executed in Indiana limestone, is noted for its restrained, ancient Greek-inspired flavor. The massive Greek Doric colonnade framed by blank end pavilions is a strong visual terminus of the plaza. The interior includes a grand central circulation room with Neo-Classical ceiling murals.

Plan your visit
Indiana World War Memorial Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, is located in the near north downtown area bounded by St. Clair, Ohio, Meridian and Pennsylvania Sts. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file. The Federal Building at Ohio and Meridian Sts. is only open to court attendees. University Park, bounded by New York, Vermont, Meridian and Pennsylvania Sts., is open dawn to dusk. The World War Memorial Building at Michigan St. between Meridian and Pennsylvania is open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Wednesday-Sunday. Call 317-232-7615 for information or group tours. The Shrine Room is one of Indiana’s most inspiring interiors. A museum on the lower levels portrays Hoosier involvement in every military conflict from revolutionary times to current Middle East actions. Grounds are open from dawn to dusk. Indianapolis—Marion County Public Library is located at St. Clair St. between Meridian and Pennsylvania. The new 6-story addition to the original building offers spectacular views of the Indiana World War Memorial Plaza. INDYGO bus line from downtown: an easy walk from Monument Circle.
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